The Sweet Spot of Tech Integration: Hands-On Projects to Boost Learning

Nourishing, high energy, fun work with kids while addressing essential academic requirements.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero 

Mark Gura is co-author of the recently released book, Creative SEL: Using Hands-On Projects to Boost Social-Emotional Learning. He is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest, author of The Edtech Advocate’s Guide to Leading Change in Schools (ISTE), co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next (EdTech Digest); he also authored Make, Learn Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School (ISTE). He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. In addition to writing and his role at EdTech Digest, he is currently a professor at Touro College Graduate School of Technology.

Tell us about your new book, recently released by its publisher, ISTE. 

Mark: “It’s the product of a long, strenuous, labor of love that my co-author, Michele Haiken, and I [Mark, pictured] undertook with strong encouragement from ISTE. 

“We’ve both been in the field quite a long time as teachers and curriculum creators. This book project, though, makes me more optimistic than I’ve been in a long time – I mean, there’s so much potential to do nourishing, high energy, fun work with kids and to do it while addressing their essential academic requirements. Producing this body of work, although challenging, was positively inspiring!”

Sounds great, but speaking for EdTech Digest, I need to know what’s the connection to technology. 

“The book offers a very large body of activities, each of which provides suggested ways for student to use tech within the context of their subject area learning. And it offers info and suggestions about how to use the tech easily and effectively. 

“Most importantly, I feel the book exemplifies that important area in the Venn Diagram of Education in which neither Technology on one side or Teaching and Learning on the other stands alone. The book is very much of that wonderful area of overlap in which the two blend naturally; something that we educators have sought for a long time. To me, it’s the sweet spot of Technology Integration.” 

Let’s talk about SEL, Social and Emotional Learning. Over the past few years, especially in reaction to challenges and difficulties experienced by a good number of K-12 students, SEL has become an area of increasing interest to educators. How does the book support teachers and students in this. 

“True, SEL has become popular recently out of need although our preparatory research showed that it’s been around for quite a while. The field is coming to regard SEL as essential and it’s gaining traction as a body of best practices develops. 

“And in creating the book I felt that while it’s easy to get the concept of SEL, easy to intuit what it is and why it’s needed, it’s not so easy, to make happen effectively in the classroom. This book addresses that need – offers teachers activities, fun and accessible activities, to do with their students. In fact, many also address things teachers already need to teach—and they foster Student Creativity.” 

So how does the book connect Creativity to SEL?

“The activities in the book all call for students to create products. Through the creation of these students come to better understand important dimensions of their social and emotional lives. These projects give them reason to reflect on themselves and the way they live in their world—they focus on explaining and communicating feelings, realizations, understandings, and life strategies. Students are challenged to create things like podcasts, infographics, illustrated poems and posters, and games—in fact, a good variety of the types of ‘learning products’ that are emblematic of Project Based Learning.” 

Those familiar with Project Based Learning associate it with the focused use of classroom technology.  

“Yes—the book takes a Project Based Learning approach, And Tech is the great enabler of PBL. You know, PBL is an instructional model that was around for quite a while before the advent of classroom technology, but it only became practical enough for the average classroom to take advantage of through the use of technology.” 

And once the students create their products, then what?

“Sharing one’s content product is an essential element of making student learning projects come alive and inspiring students. Many of us remember writing essays or creating posters as part of our school experience. And we remember that when we produced something that our teachers felt was well done either they stapled it to a bulletin board outside the classroom or perhaps it was sent home with a gold star pasted on it to be displayed on our family refrigerator, held there with a magnet. But today’s kids are moved by having a real audience beyond teacher and mom, the kind that can be had through safe, responsible use of online publishing. 

“It’s wonderful to have a voice and even more so to have it published so that one’s message may be heard. Even better yet when the audience is given a way to offer appreciation and feedback. All of this is possible through teacher monitored educational technology. I think that if we are going to direct kids to create content that we make an even stronger experience for them by finding ways for their voice to be heard. It’s part of the more authentic, real-world experience that we can now provide students. 

‘I think that if we are going to direct kids to create content that we make an even stronger experience for them by finding ways for their voice to be heard. It’s part of the more authentic, real-world experience that we can now provide students.’

“By the way, and I think this is important, our book suggests ways for students to do the projects by applying technology, but it also offers suggestions on how the projects might be done through more conventional means. The upshot of this is that teachers can reflect on what they are trying to accomplish with the students, what sort of experience they want to give them, and then see and decide for themselves what technology might add. And in this way, a gentle but profound encouragement toward further technology integration can happen.” 

Is any of what’s in the book difficult for the students and the teachers guiding them, to do?

“Well, that’s truly the great contribution that tech makes to such learning activities. Tasking students to produce content products before tech was commonly available ensured they would come up against what I’ll call the ‘Talent and Acquired Skills Barrier’. But Technology is the great equalizer. With it students can make rather professional looking content products, things that they are proud of and happy to share with others. Further, they are liberated from struggling with the media they are using and free to focus deeper on the learning important content in English Language Arts, Science, Social Studies, or other subjects in which they are doing their projects.” 

How is the book organized? What’s in it that you are proud of? 

“Basically, there’s an introductory section that discusses SEL so that readers understand its strong significance and the need to make it part of the instructional program. Some material that explains how to navigate the book to find activities that are most appropriate for the teachers’ goals and interest, and then there is the bulk of the book, the body of over 30 activities. Each project write-up gives some introductory material, a good deal on what to do and how to do it, at least one sample of the product students would create, and ancillary materials to give implementation insights. Our approach is to give enough to get people pumped and ready to do the activity, but not so much that reading through the write ups becomes a time-consuming chore. In other words high value but streamlined material.” 

How about some examples of the book’s activities. Following the book, what are some of the things teachers would challenge their students to do and learn through doing?

“First, I want to point out that our research in preparing the book took us to the work of CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning ), an organization that is acknowledged as establishing the foundation for SEL, providing theory and a framework through which to understand it. 

“But how does the rank-and-file teacher, someone who cares for young people, take this and create actual classroom activities that bring SEL to life?

“And so, Michele and I reached out to our networks of colleagues for contributions of activities from their classrooms and imaginations, and understandings of what creates high value in teaching and learning. We received suggestions from a group of highly diverse and accomplished educators.  And, we expanded this body of work with original activities of our own. Both of us, by the way, have a long history as both teachers and curriculum writers. Having said that, here are just a few of the activities in the book along with a brief description of the associated student content product:

  • “Being Your Own Life Coach: Accepting Who You Are” (an illustrated dialogue) 
  • “Kindness Matters in Our Community” (individual and group text and illustration based temporary mural)
  • “Divided Heart: Collaging Cultural Mindfulness” (a collage of curated images and written explanation)
  • “Empathy Mapping for Students” (annotated, visually rich, graphic organizer)
  • “Do You Have a P hone or Does Your Phone Have You?”
    (a variety of student generated information and attitude gathering forms as well as text-based resolution posters) 
  • Mindful Game Creation (student created board or digital game)

“All of the projects in the book involve discussion, reflection, planning, problem solving, collaboration and the giving of actionable feedback – students engage in activities that foster deep thinking, feeling, and appropriate communication.” 

Congratulations on what appears to be a book that the field needs greatly now. And what’s next? 

“This book allowed me to further explore and advise colleagues on the area of Education that I have been most passionate about during my entire career: supporting Student Creativity. So, while I will be pursuing other projects on other areas of Teaching and Learning, I am going to go still further on this one. I’ve long wanted to create a course for teachers on Student Creativity and I am going to work on that. And along the way I expect to set up some ways to support and collaborate with and get the word out to like-minded colleagues. I’ll keep you posted.” 

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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